“Operation Heartbreak” was actually one of the first Aretha Franklin sides from Columbia Records that I ever heard. My grandparents had the 45 single and gave it to me when I was 9 or 10. What’s strange about that is “Operation Heartbreak” was so sparsely released. It was initially a b-side to “Rock A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”, issued in 1961. Despite its relegation to b-side, it ended up being one of Aretha’s most successful b-sides, and one of her most successful songs from her Columbia Records era. The song peaked at number 6 on Billboard’s R&B chart, Aretha’s highest position on the chart while signed to Columbia.
The ballad was co written and produced by Al Kasha, who went on to win an Academy Award for writing “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure in the early 70’s. “Operation Heartbreak” has a light doo-wop feel and uses a string arrangement that recalls some of the hits Etta James released the year before. Alan Thomas, who co-wrote the song, only ever wrote two other songs, both released before “Operation Heartbreak”. One is unlistenable online, and the other, “Going Going Gone” has the same feel and tempo of “Operation Heartbreak.” The third co-writer, Curtis Williams, was the baritone in The Penguins, and co-wrote their number one hit “Earth Angel.” There’s a light doo wop sentiment to the song. It’s safe to say that each composer’s fingerprint is on the song.
Aretha gives a reserved performance in front of a troupe of background singers who echo words and “ooo” and “ahh” as she delivers her performance. She does stagger her phrasing in places, foreshadowing her innate ability to deliver a phrase wherever she saw fit and as a result enhance a song.
Though relegated to b-side status on its first release, “Operation Heartbreak” was issued on Columbia’s 1967 compilation album Take A Look, released in an effort to capitalize on Aretha’s success after moving from Columbia Records to Atlantic Records. Interestingly, it also made its way onto 1992’s Jazz To Soul, a 2-CD compilation that was the first CD collection to amass some of Aretha’s recordings at Columbia Records. The double compilation brought together 39 of Aretha’s more than 100 recordings at Columbia, so it’s interesting to see “Operation Heartbreak,” a little-known b-side amongst the ranks of the songs that people actually knew from Aretha, which was actually a chart success, appear there.
Listen to Aretha describe “Operation Heartbreak”: